How to find the perfect domain strategy for international SEO
As you look to expand the reach of your business to customers in different countries, your website setup and the content you have in place will need to change and evolve.
How to find the perfect domain strategy for international SEO
Before you even begin thinking about content localization and local keywords for each market, the technical setup of your website needs to be considered. The first step of this process is domain strategy.
What domain you use when targeting local markets can impact how your site performs. There are a number of options for your domain structure:
- Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs)
- Subfolders or subdirectories
There are pros and cons for each of these. In this article, I’ll examine each of the different options, their benefits and drawbacks, and consider how you can find the best domain strategy for your individual situation.
Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs)
ccTLDs (or Country Code top-level domains) are specific to a country: for example, .de for Germany or .fr for France.
Pros of ccTLDs
- Automatically associated with the country they cover (.de to Germany)
- Clear to visitors that this site is meant for them
- Obvious in the search results the site is targeted to a specific country
- In many countries, customers prefer a locally based website
- In some markets, local ccTLDs perform better in the rankings.
Cons of ccTLDs
- Increased costs of domain registration (if you are in 32 countries you need 32 ccTLDs)
- Starting from scratch with no domain history or links when you launch into a new market
- You can’t as easily set up language specific websites – so a German-language website on a .de domain will look like a German-focused website, not one which can also serve customers in German-speaking Switzerland, or Austria
- Your website will have lots of external links on it if you have a language selection dropdown on all pages. This can lead to your backlink profile being dominated by links from your own sites – that means any amazing backlinks you’ve managed to create won’t be as powerful as if your own links weren’t present (a drop in the ocean, you might say)
- SEO work on one site won’t benefit all sites, as they are all separate websites.
Subfolders or subdirectories
Subfolders (also known as subdirectories) for specific languages or countries can be added to any domain (www.yourdomain.com/de), but for this to work effectively, the site needs to be on a top-level domain such as a .com, and not a local ccTLD.
Pros of subfolders
- SEO performed on one part of the domain will benefit all the country folders as it’s one site
- There is also the added inheritance of the authority of your original website so you aren’t starting from scratch when you go into a new market
- Links between countries are seen as internal links, not external ones, which helps your backlink profile as it will be made up predominantly of links from other people’s sites and not mainly from your own site
- No extra domain hosting costs.
Cons of subfolders
- In the search results, it’s not as obvious that the country subfolder is specifically for users in that country (/de/ could be a page about your German products rather than a page specifically aimed at German users)
- No automatic association in search to the target country
- Risk of internal cannibalization – different international landing pages wind up competing with each other in search results, and it can be difficult to get the right landing page to rank in the relevant country’s search
- Be wary of automatic optimization settings in your CMS – the last thing you want is your beautifully translated website for the Italian market to have a default title tag and meta description on every page which is in English.
Subdomains add the country content to the beginning of the domain (de.yourdomain.com). Some CMS tools or proxies default to this behavior, so it’s been a popular technique for many international websites.
Again, this solution only works when the parent website is a .com domain.
Pros of subdomains
- Default for some CMS tools
- Has some connection to the current SEO authority of the main website, which can aid performance when launching in a new country
- Links to subdomains from the language drop-down are seen as external links, however, the level of this is less than when you have unique ccTLDs for each country
- No automatic association in the search engines with the country you’re targeting
- Users are less likely to associate your domain with their country, as the language specification is at the beginning of the domain
- Again, risk of internal cannibalization: Google will typically only feature one subdomain from the same site in the SERPs, meaning that your subdomains wind up competing with one another for the same search terms.
So which domain strategy works best?
All we’ve seen from the above is that there are pros and cons for all the available domain strategies, and no real clear winner for which works best.
IP serving is not the solution
From an SEO point of view, we need to avoid IP serving (serving different content to the user depending on their IP address) wherever possible. All the search engines need to be able to find and index all of your content, but have IP ranges which come from specific countries.
Google, for example, comes from the US, meaning that it will be automatically redirected to your US content. This can present issues with the indexation and visibility of your local websites in the search results.
Making informed decisions
The best way for your business to decide which domain strategy is right for your websites is to review a number of different elements. Here are some key ones to start off with:
This is a good kick-off point; there’s no point in looking at all the options, doing your research and deciding on a domain strategy, only to find that your CMS doesn’t support the approach you’ve chosen.
There are a number of considerations here:
- Are there extra costs associated with any of the domain strategies?
- Does the CMS support cross-domain content publication and hreflang tags no matter which domain strategy you choose?
Top level marketing strategy
Another one which is well worth checking before doing anything else. If your business has a logo which contains the domain, or a set of brand guidelines which involve talking about the company as YourBrand.com, then you may find that any recommendation to move to a ccTLD for specific markets might not be accepted.
Check in with the decision makers on that before you begin roll-out of research into domain strategy (and save yourself time!)
Competitor research and ranking review
Look at the marketplace for the country you are interested in, and also at the domain strategies which work for the companies who are performing well in the search results. This should include search competitors and publishers on a similar topic, not just your known named competitor.
Are you a small business with limited marketing budgets, but looking to expand into 19 markets? If so, a ccTLD approach could eat into your budgets.
You might find that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and in some markets, it might be better to have a ccTLD whilst in all of the other countries you are focused on a .com domain. At this point, your own marketing needs to kick in.
If you are comfortable having multiple domain marketing strategies, then do so; if you aren’t, then consider putting all sites on the same strategy. Just remember, it’s unlikely that your international customers will care that one site is on a ccTLD and another is on a .com!
Final considerations: Language
One final thing to consider when choosing domains for an international audience is the words used in the domain.
Although your domain is often your company name or something comprising this, one thing to consider for international audiences is whether this name, your domain, or the way words are combined in your domain, could look odd to audiences who speak a different language.
The worst-case scenario is that your domain looks like a swear word or insult in a different language. So, before you commit to a particular domain, check with local people living in that market that you won’t be accidentally calling their mother a hamster.